IT’S no Sesame Street, that’s for sure. Though its cast of puppets may look cute and fluffy, their swearing could make a sailor blush.
This is post-watershed puppetry that doesn’t shy away from tackling controversial issues through the medium of laughter.
During runs in the West End and Broadway, Avenue Q’s witty satirical coming-of-age parable earned it a Tony Award “triple crown” for Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book.
It tells the story of a recent college graduate named Princeton who moves into a shabby New York apartment on Avenue Q. There, he meets Kate (the girl next door), Rod (the Republican), Trekkie (the internet sexpert), Lucy The Sl*t and other colourful types who help Princeton finally discover his true purpose in life.
From racism to pornography, the musical leaves no stone unturned in its bid to elicit laughs.
Now, the show is on its first professional tour since 2011 and is heading to the Sunderland Empire next month.
Producer Phillip Rowntree explains what Wearside can expect.
“Our version is different from the West End version, but there’s only so far you can go in terms of altering it,” he said. “We’ve got new puppets which were designed by the guy who looks after the PG Tips monkey. You’ll still recognise them, they are different, but still have similar characteristics.”
Speaking about the puppets’ potty mouths, he said: “We plaster warnings everywhere. The puppets are so adorable so parents think they’ll bring their kids. But once you’ve heard them talk you quickly realise it’s not for kids.
“There are two different types of audience who come to Avenue Q – those who are die hard Avenue Q fans and then those who have heard about it and come along to try it. For the first five minutes they’re a little bit confused, then they love it. There’s a moment when they give over to it.
“Kate Monster is the first puppet to swear and once she says it, that’s when the audience changes.” Skilled puppeteers bring the puppets to life to perform tracks including The Internet Is For Porn and Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist.
Phillip says casting directors, unlike in other musicals, look for an actor with no experience of the role.
“A lot of it comes down to how well the puppets are manipulated by the cast. I had a go myself the other week and it’s really difficult to give the puppets life,” he said. “We specifically look for people who aren’t traditional puppeteers. You’ll have seen ventriloquists on Britain’s Got Talent but the Avenue Q puppeteers never look at the puppets, their eyeline is the same as the puppets.
“Puppets are a great way of telling a story. There are some that are terrible, but when they are done well they can make you see a story in a way you’ve never thought of before. You can lose yourself in the puppet and, done well, it can make you believe anything.”
And he says that puppets can add a different dimension to a narrative.
“You can also get away with a lot more with puppets. There’s a sex scene we do which is very graphic, something you wouldn’t do with actors.
“But people forgive them because they’re puppets.”
The Sunderland leg of the tour will be the closest Phillip, who hails from Ashington, Northumberland, will get to home.
He says it’s great to see so many big name shows coming to the region.
“I’m from Ashington so my local theatres are Sunderland Empire and Theatre Royal. It’s great that so many big name shows are coming here. People in the North East want to see these shows as much as anyone else. If you put the right production on, people will come to see it.
“It’s a tough time for theatre, but the reason these shows are a success is because they’re giving the audience what they want: a good time.”
•Avenue Q is at Sunderland Empire from July 14-16. Tickets are from £15 in person at the Box Office or from £17.90 from the Ticket Centre on 0844 871 3022 or online at www.ATGtickets.com/Sunderland.
We’ve teamed up with Sunderland Empire to give away a pair of tickets to the show on July 14.
To be in with a chance of winning, answer this question: which letter Avenue do the stars of the show live on?
Email your answer to firstname.lastname@example.org